There was a time when the release of a new Gorillaz album was a cause for celebration. The band went dormant after 2010, following the release of the seismic Plastic Beach and the so-so iPad album The Fall. Frontman Damon Albarn went back and forth on whether we’d hear from Gorillaz again, so the announcement of 2017’s Humanz was a gift—at least at first. When the album actually arrived, it felt like the resurrected Gorillaz should have been left in the Pet Sematary. A messy, bloated affair, Humanz showed that the band’s reliance on its guest stars had reached critical mass, with each song doing its best to push Albarn out of the equation. When The Now Now was announced, the excitement for a new Gorillaz album was completely absent—Humanz was a party you thought you wanted to go to, but it was just too crowded to hear your own thoughts.

The fortunate thing about this is that The Now Now, while not being packed with the same level of maximalist excitement prevalent on Humanz, is a return to bare essentials for Albarn. There are fewer musicians on this album than there were guest stars on the last one—just 10 people appear here, only three of whom are guests. The guests here are never the focus—not even Snoop Dogg, utilized perfectly on Plastic Beach as the one who introduces us to that album’s sunnier textures. Instead, on “Hollywood,” Snoop is just another piece of the puzzle. If you come to Gorillaz for the “Clint Eastwood”/”Feel Good Inc.” kinds of guest appearances, you’re in the wrong place. The rest of the time, it’s all Albarn—and his characteristically buried vocals, a comforting sound; essentially, this is a 2-D solo album.

Here, he gives himself to embrace his own melancholy, and while his lyrics aren’t world-class, they dodge being overwrought at every turn. “Calling the world from isolation/ ‘Cause right now, that’s the ball where we be chained,” he sings at the top of opener “Humility.” In Albarn’s lyrics, we find the real focus of The Now Now: loneliness and, yes, isolation. This is the portrait of a man/cartoon character trying to cope with the current state of the world by dissociating (“I’m not gonna cry/ I’ve got more time to give/ I’m not gonna cry/ I’ll find another dream” on “Kansas”) or working to escape into the crowds of Hollywood or Miami (“When you get back on a Saturday night/ And your head is caving in/ Do you look like me, do you feel like me/ Do you turn into your effigy?” on “Tranz”). The album’s closer, the frankly immaculate “Souk Eye,” sums it all up perfectly: “LA, why you so complicated for me?

Clocking in at 10 minutes shorter than the standard edition of its predecessor (with about half as many tracks), The Now Now is the perfect model of breeziness, with just one song approaching the 5-minute mark. This is an album made for summertime, alternating between dreamlike airiness (“Kansas”) and warm, nocturnal dancebeats (“Lake Zurich”), practically begging to float through the air at your next barbecue or trip to the beach; think a more mainstream Italians Do It Better After Dark compilation. Therein lies the biggest issue with it: even the best wallpaper music is still wallpaper music. The Now Now fails to grab the listener in the same way that previous Gorillaz releases did, sacrificing sinew for lush atmospheres. Despite having five singles, the album scarcely has any songs strong enough for the radio (“Hollywood” and “Lake Zurich,” the most propulsive songs here, are the only real choices), a first for the band. This fact alone makes the album too perplexing to be boring.

At the end of the day, The Now Now isn’t as exciting as the band’s albums usually are, but it’s the best kind of album Gorillaz could give us: an antidote to the landscapes being sung about. The Fall felt like an inconsequential release because it provided a balance that didn’t need to be there—we didn’t need Albarn alone because Plastic Beach, aside from having plenty of him, didn’t have a “Too Many Cooks” situation. This one is just like escaping to the quiet balcony at that too-crowded party, and giving yourself just enough breathing room to remember why you came to the party in the first place. We can only hope the band manages to remember, too.

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